The Middle East and North Africa are home to some of the world’s most beautiful wonders. From Egypt’s White and Black Deserts to the Dead Sea in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, to the Jabal Qara Caves in Saudi Arabia and Oman’s Musandam Fjords, to Jordan’s Wadi Rum and the scenic Rubaa El Khali in the Arabian Peninsula, the region is teeming with awe-inspiring wonders. Although globally celebrated among the world’s most beautiful sites in the natural world, these places are effectively inaccessible to 10 percent of the world’s vacationers: tourists with disabilities.
Out of the 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, only two rank among the world’s most disability-friendly destinations: Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Wadi Rum (via Hubert Guyon)
In Jordan, a country that relies heavily on tourism for economic growth and where people with disabilities account for 13 percent of the population, the issue of disability rights and accessibility hardly occupies the place it deserves in public policy and debate. Like many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, people with disabilities not only have to contend with inaccessibility, but also with public apathy and discrimination.
But the times, they are a-changin' for Jordan's citizens and visitors with disabilities, and it all started - as change often does - with a tragedy. It was the death of Majd – a young Jordanian girl who was denied admission to school and passed away on the operating table while attempting to surgically correct her disability – that sparked change. News of her death prompted outrage among disability rights activists in Jordan, who launched a campaign in commemoration and remembrance of Majd. Founded by activist Abdul Rahman Salameh, the Majd Initiative saw a number of citizens with disabilities descend on Petra to raise awareness about disability discrimination in Jordan and promote accessibility. “We need to raise awareness that people with disabilities must be treated as equal contributing members of society and not accept their seclusion and isolation. By improving cultural awareness and providing accessible transportation, people with disabilities can have access to education, healthcare, work, and tourism,” says Aya Aghabi, Jordan’s most prominent disability rights activists, a member of the Majd Initiative and founder of Accessible Jordan, an online platform whose main component is a directory of accessible establishments in the country – from restaurants to museums.
Home to five World Heritage Sites, Jordan cannot afford to be anything but accessible to people with disabilities. “Accessible tourism can play a big role in promoting economic growth in Jordan, the Middle East, and North Africa. By improving accessibility in that sector, the governments can reduce unemployment, especially for people with disabilities who can enter the labor force working in that field,” Aghabi says. “It can also increase local tourism influx and attract more international tourists, raising the country’s GDP.”
In 2009, Aghabi survived a car accident that left her paraplegic. A year later, she moved to California where she attended UC Berkley. “Berkeley is the city in which the disability movement began, so I was lucky to experience living there for three years and know what it’s like to be in a place that is completely accessible and allowing me to be independent in my daily life,” she says.
It wasn’t until her return to Jordan that she realized the extent to which inaccessibility affects people with disabilities in her home country. “I believe traveling promotes cultural understanding, peace, self-confidence, independence, and much more. I love traveling and usually travel internationally a minimum of two times per year, and very frequently locally,” she says. “It has definitely become more of a challenge to travel since becoming wheelchair-dependent and that has resulted in me traveling less often than I would like.”Aya Aghabi with fellow members of the Majd Foundation in Petra (via Accessible Jordan)
But Jordan may finally be joining the ranks of disability-friendly countries after years of campaigning by disability rights advocates. Their hard-won victory came earlier this year when the Jordanian parliament passed the Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities No. 20 of 2017. The bill provides further legal protections for citizens with disabilities, prohibits discrimination, and broadens the definition of disability to include more segments of that community.
Heralded as the “most advanced” disability rights law in the region by Muhannad Azzeh, the Secretary-General of the Higher Council for People with Disabilities in Jordan, the law puts the emphasis on accessibility and its importance for the country’s tourism section. “The law stipulates the adherence to accessibility standards in the country’s tourism sector. As a result, many government entities, including the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, have now set up accessible tourism departments to work on this issue,” Aghabi says. “Businesses have also begun addressing accessibility [of facilities and amenities], and I have personally worked with many through my Accessible Jordan initiative.”
Nation-wide, the Jordanian government issued a directive to make all new public buildings wheelchair-accessible. Petra, arguably Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction, is making strides of its own. In accordance with the World Tourism Organization’s definition of accessibility – “Accessible Tourism is to ensure the enjoyment of the tourist regardless of her/his natural and financial abilities, and physical and mental status, which is one of the most important elements of the concept of tourism for all" – entry to Petra’s sites and museums is now free for people with disabilities, as part of a coordinated campaign to make Petra accessible. Accessibility is now a licensing requirement for hotels in Petra, and horsedrawn carriages and golf carts are provided to tourists with disabilities visiting the city’s sites. The archeological city also now issues permits to access the back trail of Petra, allowing vehicles on the previously unusable road.
But Jordan still has a long way to go. According to tourism expert Yousef Zreagat, who believes Jordan is ill-prepared to receive tourists with disabilities, “For persons with disabilities, not only do archaeological sites have to be accessible, but also tourist destinations such as Downtown Amman and other cities,” he said in a statement to the Jordan Times. “Jordan does not have transportation means that are designed for these tourists, nor does it have accessible restrooms at the border crossings.”
“Countries in Europe and North America have accessible transportation that makes it possible for tourists with physical disabilities to move around in a country easily,” Aghabi says. “In Jordan, tourists with disabilities can’t even leave the airport and get to their hotel due to the lack of accessible transportation, especially if they are using electric wheelchairs.”
To many people with disabilities visiting or living in Jordan, these reforms are a day late and a dollar short. Now that people with disabilities no longer have to contend with de jure discrimination, the question of Jordan's ableist culture should become the focus of the country's disability rights activism. “The two most important factors in improving accessible tourism are transportation and cultural awareness," Aghabi says. "Our societies need to begin understanding that accessibility is a human right first and foremost.”